President Bush and top aides stoutly defended his wiretapping
directive Monday, launching a three-day offensive to regain control of
public debate on the controversy in advance of congressional hearings.
Democrats fired back with a barrage of pointed criticisms about the
electronic eavesdropping program Bush authorized shortly after the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
During a broader address on Iraq and
terrorism at Kansas State University, Bush described the surveillance
initiative _ which set off a political firestorm when it was revealed
last month _ as legal, limited in scope and necessary to protect
Americans. “I made the decision to do the following things because
there’s an enemy that still wants to harm the American people,” Bush
said. “What I’m talking about is the intercept of certain
communications emanating between somebody inside the United States and
outside the United States, and one of the numbers would be reasonably
suspected to be an al Qaeda link or affiliate. In other words, we have
ways to determine whether or not someone can be an al Qaeda affiliate
or al Qaeda. And if they’re making a phone call in the United States,
it seems like to me we want to know why.”
Bush said he acted legally.
“If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?” Bush said.
“Federal courts have consistently ruled that a president has authority
under the Constitution to conduct foreign intelligence surveillance
against our enemies. Predecessors of mine have used that same
Congressional leaders from both
parties have complained that the briefings didn’t fully disclose the
scope of the program, and Republicans have joined Democrats in raising
concerns. Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary
Committee, summoned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify about
the eavesdropping at a Feb. 6 hearing.
The core issue is whether
Bush had the legal power to bypass a special, closed-door court
Congress set up in 1978 to issue warrants for foreign intelligence
At a contentious news conference in Washington,
Gen. Michael Hayden, who headed the National Security Agency when it
implemented Bush’s eavesdropping directive, repeatedly said the program
safeguarded civil liberties.
“When you’re talking to your
daughter at state college, this program cannot intercept your
conversations,” said Hayden, now deputy director of intelligence in the
government’s reorganized espionage apparatus. “And when she takes a
semester abroad to complete her Arabic studies, this program will not
intercept your communications.”
Sharply rebuffing news reports
of “domestic spying” as distorted, Hayden said: “This isn’t a driftnet
out there where we’re soaking up everyone’s communications. We are
going after very specific communications that our professional judgment
tells us we have reason to believe are those associated with people who
want to kill Americans.”
An Arab journalist asked Hayden whether
the program is targeting Arab Americans or Muslim Americans, and a
member of an anti-war group demanded to know whether conversations
among Bush’s political foes are being monitored. Hayden responded no to
Gonzales was to deliver an address on the surveillance
initiative Tuesday while Bush is scheduled to visit the NSA
headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., on Wednesday.
Sen. Harry Reid
of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, issued one statement rebutting
Bush’s assertions about the wiretapping and a second release that
criticized Hayden’s claims.
“We will stop at nothing to hunt
down and defeat the terrorists, and we will do that by holding firm to
our deepest values of democracy and liberty,” Reid said. “That is why
Americans of all backgrounds and political parties are concerned about
NSA’s domestic spying program. I am eager for the Bush administration
to level with the American people and participate fully and openly in
the congressional hearings.”
In the second release, Reid’s
office issued a “fact check” on Hayden’s briefing, giving it a C-minus
grade and deriding it as “poorly researched.”
Bush’s speech, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, appeared on
five morning TV shows to defend the eavesdropping.
president has authorized, this terrorist surveillance program, is
absolutely what the American people should expect from their commander
in chief,” Bartlett told NBC.
Traveling with reporters aboard
Air Force One en route to Kansas, White House press secretary Scott
McClellan criticized “some Democratic leaders that have continued to
engage in misleading, false attacks about this vital tool.”